Reading Naked Girls Reading: Are we dismantling or reinforcing gendered expression?

Last weekend, Naked Girls Reading returned to Johannesburg’s intimate POP Art theatre for a brief three-performance run, themed “African Literature”. As a woman hungry for cultural reappropriation of the vandalised female form, I went along, eager to experience something innovative and offbeat.

After hearing about Naked Boys Reading events in London, Berlin and Toronto, where the litera- ture can be anything from Amazon reviews to psychoanalysis and serves as a vehicle for male bodies to become reinvigorated sites of expression, I expected to witness the renegotiating of women’s bodies on women’s terms.

So, when four women of different races and body types sauntered on stage in a uniform aesthetic — silk gowns, black stilettos, glitter makeup — I felt uneasy. As the naked, but still somehow heavily adorned, readers dropped their gowns, crossed their legs and opened their books, it seemed that the opportunity to champion difference in women’s bodies and identities had given way to four approximations of a pervasive brand of femininity.

In 2016 “female empowerment” takes multiple, sometimes clashing, forms of self-expression. No one can say that stereotypical feminine trappings are not liberating to those who choose them. But, when a concept comes along, claiming that “people can’t seem to accept its simplicity — Naked Girls. Reading” while branding women according to a normative aesthetic, it undercuts its potential to strip down and redefine how we read women’s bodies.

By all means, give us heels, glitter and salon hairstyles but if you don’t balance it out with slip-slops and unplucked body parts, where is the celebration of the individual?

Surely the adherence to a single aesthetic defeats the point — to celebrate and empower women in our own skin?

Not according to the director/producer Alicia Skead, who uncritically makes mention of a “rulebook” handed down by Naked Girls Reading HQ in Chicago, where the brand was founded seven years ago in the image of burlesque performer Michelle L’amour.

For Skead, “black heels ensure the brand is represented the right way [because] at the end of the day we’re still tapping into sex”.

Like most artistic ventures using the female form as their selling point while claiming to be progressive, Naked Girls Reading is rife with problematic assumptions — such as the alignment of female nudity with sex — and ideological contradictions.

On the one hand, Skead embraces heels and lipstick as sexualising symbols but, on the other, she perceives them as markers of “a neutral body”, suggesting that an unmediated female form is actually the aim.

Lola Banks, cofounder of POP Art and a Naked Reader, says that it isn’t about the nudity at all: “No one talks to us about the nakedness at the end of a show,” she says. “It’s all about the literature. When we get questions like, ‘When will the reading list be published?’, that means its working.”

Skead nods in agreement, saying: “Do you think people would listen as intently if the women weren’t naked? No one wants to be the perve in the crowd so they listen closely.”

Admittedly, I was doing more looking than listening, but the strong literary content and varied vocal deliveries did carry the show through.

The readings touched on female experiences, from child-birth to rape, as well as contemplations on the “post-Madiba” South Africa alongside musings on “the real Africa”. A range of literary voices were presented, from writer Phillipa Yaa de Villiers and journalist Rebecca Davis to one of the Naked Readers themselves, who goes by the moniker Ms Soul Ink “because my soul is in my writing, in my ink”.

An event such as Naked Girls Reading will always divide opinion. Although I willed the women to kick off their heels and relax their body language, another woman raved to the readers after the show: “You are liberating us! I am going home to read naked … deal with it.”

The experience ultimately sparked that familiar double tug. Do we appreciate the liberating intention behind this limited vision or do we demand more from the concept? In the end, the answer is simple. If the aim is complete freedom of gendered expression, we depend on fringe culture to interrogate and dismantle the mainstream, uniform female “ideal”, not to reinforce it.

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